Example sentences from English grammar texts tend to orbit in outer space. For example, how often would you say, “The leg was bitten by a dog.” It is not necessarily incorrect, but it is also not anything you’d expect someone to say. Granted, we can work from the abstract and figure out the specifics, but if our species originated on this earth, it’s not a bad thing to start where our once amphibious feet hit the ground. With that in mind, let’s find ways to tether odd sentences to our somewhat everyday lives.
In textbook dialogues, someone is always earnestly asking about this and that. “What is this? What is that? This is a pencil case. That is a pencil case.” If it puzzles you why someone needs to ask and be told, be reminded that it is a conversation with a visually impaired customer in a stationary store. Likewise, the disabled participate in the conversation, Where’s the bed? It’s in the bedroom,” though I think the answer is insensitive. If someone can’t find the bed, why would they know where the bedroom is?
Some examples are for creepy situations. “What’s this? It’s an eye.” This is a dialogue used in a bad restaurant when foreign objects are found in the stew. “It’s an eye,” can also be used when playing guessing games in a dark morgue. “What are these? They are hands.” Say it with disinterested inflections for best results.
For the present continuous we have, “What are you wearing? I am wearing a white shirt.” This conversation existed before Skype, though the answer wouldn’t be very titillating. It could be stretched with prepositions to the effect of, “What are you wearing under your white shirt?” but why bother at that point? The conversation probably requires the proper inflection of, “What are you WEARing?” followed by, “We’re at the beach,” and ending with, “What were you thinking?” That would be a fun lesson.
Practicing prepositions is a textbook favorite, so we have questions asking if the stove is in the kitchen, if the TV is on the chair and if the washing machine is between the buckets. The stove sentence works in Laos because a hibachi is something that can be picked up and taken out to the back yard. This sentence expresses relief when someone finds that the stove is where it should be. For the washing machine, the buckets need to be as big as the washing machine if the explanation is to be useful enough to really help someone find the missing washer.
Asking about daily habits is very earthbound, but I’ve never met a Lao person precise enough to have to ask, “What time do you feed the chickens?” The one asking is either the manager at a large poultry farm or a member of a busy household that that operates without Google calendars.
Conjunctions are de rigueur for basic grammar so we have, “I like papaya salad but I don’t like fried eggs,” but who could possibly not like fried eggs if they like papaya salad? This one would make an alien linguist think twice. We have categories and contrasts for a reason. “I like seafood, but I don’t like squid,” makes more sense to me.
No matter how hard we try to use gravitational force to root our language lessons, the quintessential questions of, “What’s this? What’s that?” are by default most useful for the visiting ET, but as visitors makes repeat visits, it’s up to us to offer good service and learn their language. English is gravity bound.